Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to go to Greece. Growing up, I had been regaled with stories from my father about his childhood there. He had told me what our family’s farm was like, what Sparta was like, and how people lived there. He would return every summer after moving and reunite with his family. I never had this opportunity until I was fifteen years old. Until then my experience being Greek was only what living with my father in America allowed. Something around 1,153,295 Americans of Greek descent can relate to according to numbers from the U.S. Census (2004, para. 1). Given that my mom’s side was Italian, which I also love, I never got the full Greek experience as my Dad did. The summer of 2015 was the year that would all change. That year, I was exposed to Greek culture for what it was, and it taught me a new way of traveling for years to come. Later in 2017, when I went to Italy I knew that I wanted my trip to to be just as immersive and eye-opening.
Going to Greece was the most anticipated trip of my lifetime; for as long as I could remember I wanted to go. It was almost surreal that I was finally getting the chance. I had traveled to many countries before with my family, but nothing matched the scope of what this trip was. Echoing the trips of my father, I spent a little over a month in Greece. I spent the first two weeks with him in Sparta where he showed me all of his spots. The beach he spent his childhood days lounging at was sunny and crowded, the smell of lemon-drenched lamb and sea salt filling the air.
Me at my family home I stayed at in Greece. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Later in our visit, he spontaneously took me to the ruins of Ancient Sparta, not open to the public at the time, so we jumped over the fence. The huge stretch of stone and marble was all ours for the hour. All I could think about was that the ground I was walking on was the same ground that Leonidas once defended until he fell in 480 B.C at Thermopylae (Lendering, n.d. para. 14). We spent the last two days in Athens as tourists, visiting sites like the Parthenon until my Dad had to leave. This time was fun, but I mostly experienced Greece from the outside. I had no idea what it was like to be a part of the real, unadulterated culture instead of just being an observer. Up until then, I had only learned about it from my Dad’s stories. So later, when my grandfather and I returned to our village, I had no clue what I was going to do anymore.
Ruins of Ancient Sparta (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
That would be answered the next morning when I went to that same beach, which became a daily routine in Greece. A friend of my grandfather’s noticed us there, introducing himself and his kids, who turned out to be my age. We spent our time taking a refreshing dip in the sea, filling our bellies with souvlaki, and getting to know each other. We were fast friends and made plans to get together that night. After they picked me up, we walked down this tiny, winding street that cars could barely fit through. It led to an open area where we found a group of kids laughing and playing a card game. Everyone there knew each other, the familiar atmosphere making it clear that it was a tight-knit community. Funnily enough, this was the same spot my father would hang out with his friends and cousins around forty years ago; some things never change.
Giorgos, Marigoula, and I. Two of some of the people I would be able to call lifelong friends. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
At first, it was very hard to communicate with them. I knew barely any Greek and only a few of them knew English. However, throughout the next few weeks, these barriers proved to be unimportant and these kids would become my lifelong friends. We spent the nights playing soccer near the local water spout and playing cards. We coordinated some of the most intense hide-and-seek games of my life, running through the town, sneaking through abandoned buildings, and navigating the twisting roads. I started to become one of them; my daily life paralleled theirs.
Another local treasure I found was something I would not have been able to experience if I acted as a traditional tourist. Every once in a while, these small towns threw huge parties that hundreds of people turned out for. There was fresh food cooking, live music booming through the streets, and dancing. We would all be there until the morning, basking in this shared experience and enjoying the little things that surface level tourism doesn’t allow you to discover. I had a vacation with no itinerary; I was just living alongside everyone else in this little town. I immersed myself in the activities, built lifelong friendships with the people, and even learned some Greek along the way.
One of the local parties held in my town. Sat with my grandfather on the far right and his friends. My Father was taking the photo. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
This completely changed my perspective on how to experience vacations. It was much more enriching to experience the culture as one of the locals rather than as a tourist. From then on, I would try and meet the locals in the places I visited and truly involve myself in the day-to-day activities rather than the flashy attractions. I wanted to move forward with the goal of experiencing my vacations through the eyes of the actual inhabitants. I wanted to see what they saw, eat how they ate, and live how they lived.
One of my last days in Greece. Sat overlooking the town at the abandoned windmill, a common hangout spot among the kids. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
One of the next trips I went on was to Italy in 2017. A country which according to the Statista Research Department (2020) gets around “96.2 million tourists a year" (para. 1). While I had been to Italy before with my family, this time we decided to rent a villa in the town of Porto Ercole instead of a hotel. After my Greece trip, I was way more excited about it and had a plan to take every opportunity to make the trip an authentic, immersive one. Even when I packed clothes for this trip, I did so not trying to stand out as an American tourist in Italy. I really wanted to dip my toes in the culture.
The pier of Porto Ercole. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
The house we stayed in was right above a local in the town, and I made an effort to become friends with her throughout my stay. She eventually introduced me to all the other kids of the town and I ingratiated myself into their group. We spent nights out in the town, walking up and down the pier, talking and smoking cigarettes on the rocks. In the following days, every plan they made included me. Even though I just met them I felt welcomed in their friend group. I got to experience culture at its core and learn the daily life of Italian teenagers. I kept in touch with them even after I left. When I returned to Italy two years later, I reunited with these kids and we still hung out as we did years ago. Whereas in Greece I first discovered this way of travel, in Italy I sought it out in a deliberate way.
The group of friends I made in Italy on a casual night out. (Photo by Nikko Markakos. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
This new way to travel has changed my life and introduced me to a global network of people with whom I stay in touch to this day. I have gotten to experience so many cultures in ways most tourists don’t have access to, or don’t attempt to find. Landmarks and tourist destinations have their merit, but it is special in an entirely different way to find the heart of the culture and embrace it. I would not want to travel any differently.
Number of greeks in the united states. (2004, March 3). Namecensus-Names. https://namecensus.com/ancestry/Greek.html
Lendering, J. (n.d.). Leonidas—Livius. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.livius.org/articles/person/leonidas/
Tourism in Italian cities. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/topics/5972/tourism-in-italian-cities/